The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Is This a Hall of Fame Pitcher?

How many outstanding seasons must a pitcher accumulate to become a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate?  This question is more important than ever because, now that the 300-game winner is likely to become all but extinct, it will become  increasingly necessary over the next several years to develop a set of objective criteria which might enable a  broad consensus to form regarding what exactly constitutes a Hall of Fame pitching career.

When we look back over the history of baseball regarding what it has meant to be a Hall of Fame-worthy pitcher, the 300-win threshold was not always considered a prerequisite to HOF induction.  Certainly, plenty of exceptions to this relatively modern de facto standard have been  made over the years to recognize the excellence of pitchers such as Dizzy Dean (150 wins), Jack Chesbro (198 wins), Rube Waddell (193 wins), Ed Walsh (195 wins), Addie Joss (160 wins), Dazzy Vance (197 wins), and, of course, Sandy Koufax (165 wins.)

In none of their respective cases did winning fewer than 200 games, let alone 300,  prevent their eventual enshrinement.  Fans and sportswriters alike were apparently of the opinion that greatness did not necessarily equal longevity, or that “only” a few outstanding seasons simply weren’t enough to merit Hall induction.

Yet by the 1970’s — certainly by the 1980’s — it had become de rigour for fans and pundits alike to trumpet the 300-win standard (or something damned close to it) for a pitcher to obtain even a passing glance at Hall immortality.  The irony is that at precisely about the time Hall voters had appeared to come to expect this arbitrary standard of would-be HOF pitchers, the game itself was evolving in ways (increased reliance on team’s bullpens, for example) that would make it less likely that modern pitchers would ever likely become 300-game winners.

There is always a lag time between what is true and what we believe to be true.  That is called learning from experience.  The history of America is the history of what we once believed to be true (slavery was justifiable, women could not compete in the workplace with men, etc.) versus where we are (however imperfectly realized) today.  HOF voters and fans are no different, and represent, perhaps, an even more conservative subculture of the general population.  Once an idea takes root, it is nearly impossible to shake.  Thus the continual, disproportionate attention paid to statistics such as batting average (for hitters) and wins (for pitchers.)

So, keeping in mind actual Hall of Fame history, please allow me to provide you with a series of statistics, and you tell me, (keeping in mind that only about one-third of Hall of Fame pitchers have actually won over 300 games) did this particular pitcher enjoy a HOF-worthy career or not?

Let’s begin with this pitcher’s three best consecutive peak seasons:

58 wins, 19 losses, completed 35 of 99 starts, 13 shutouts, 745 innings, 744 strikeouts, 1.04 WHIP, .187 batting average against, 2.28 ERA, 22.0 WAR, won a Cy Young award, and finished 2nd and 7th in the voting the other two years.  Incidentally, this is not a 19th-century, or early 20th-century dead-ball era pitcher.

At this point, would you agree or disagree that those are Hall of Fame-caliber numbers?

Lest you might think that those three seasons represent the entirety of this pitcher’s productive career, here are his statistics for his seven best consecutive years (he missed about half of one of these seasons):

119 wins, 46 losses, a .721 win-loss percentage, 209 starts, 55 complete games, 20 shutouts, 1,522 innings, 1,391 strikeouts, 1.14 WHIP (the same as Greg Maddux’s career WHIP), .207 batting average against, a 2.83 ERA, and 36 WAR (which includes his very respectable contributions with the bat.)

There was another 4th place as well as a 5th place finish in Cy Young voting during those additional four seasons.  In four of those seven years, he struck out over 200 batters, and he never lost more than nine games in any one of those campaigns.  That 36 WAR, by the way, is about the same as or higher than a few starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame, and we’re not quite done with this pitcher yet.

So, how about now?  Does this seven-year run of success merit HOF attention?  Does he at least belong in the conversation?  Are his numbers, at least at this point, not on a par with the other pitchers I mentioned in an earlier paragraph who won fewer than 200 games, but are in the Hall anyway?

To be eligible to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, a ballplayer needs to have accumulated at least ten seasons of service time at the Major League level.  So let’s look at this pitcher’s best ten-year period, and we’ll evaluate his HOF-worthiness:

154 wins-81 losses, .655 win-loss percentage, 296 starts, 67 complete games, 23 shutouts, 2,128 innings, 1,852 hits, 1,835 strikeouts, 3.03 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, .212 batting average against (he batted .200 over those ten seasons), and 47.0 WAR.

Admittedly, those are just about the only productive seasons he enjoyed during his career, but they certainly were a productive ten years.  The 154 wins are not that different from the number Koufax, Vance, Dean, and the others won during their entire careers.  And this pitcher’s final career WAR, 53.2, is higher than Hall of Famers Elmer Flick, Burleigh Grimes, Sam Rice, Mickey Cochrane, Bobby Doerr, Kirby Puckett, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Lazzeri, Chief Bender, Bob Lemon, Nellie Fox…and Sandy Koufax.

Mind you, no one’s arguing that this pitcher was necessarily better than any of those players.  But if his career WAR is at least on a  par with those Hall of Famers, would it be ridiculous to ask if he should at least be in the conversation regarding the Hall of Fame?

His final career totals:

194-112, .634 win-loss percentage, 2,800 innings, 2,564 hits, 2,293 strikeouts, a .226 career batting average against, 1.25 WHIP, 3.51 ERA (though just 3.11 over his 12 years in the N.L.) a no-hitter, the aforementioned Cy Young award, a Rookie of the Year award, four trips to the All Star game, a Silver Slugger, and a World Championship ring.

So what’s your final decision as far as the Hall of Fame is concerned?  Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Either way, you’ve just taken a long, hard look at the career of Dwight Gooden.

Gooden spent just one year on the HOF ballot, drew just 3% of the vote, and that was the end of that.

It may very well be that every single member of the BBWAA took the time to seriously consider Gooden’s record before they cast their ballot, but I doubt it.  Players are preceded, smothered and sometimes buried by the narrative that has attached itself to their names, like barnacles under an old ship.  Gooden’s narrative is complex and tragic.

Now, I realize Gooden is far from the only potentially deserving HOF candidate to have been virtually ignored by HOF voters.  But I chose him precisely because so few fans and writers have ever appeared to take his overall career as seriously as his accomplishments suggest that they should.

Not every pitcher who finds success in the Majors is going to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.  I get that.  But the current process does beg the question, short of 300 victories, just what exactly is it that voters want?

Author’s note:  I had written this post in its entirety before learning of the retirement of the great Roy Halladay late yesterday afternoon.  I could just as easily have made my key point about Halladay as about Gooden.  Will Halladay, with just 203 career wins, end up one and done on the Hall ballot like Gooden, or will the BBWAA recall all the great years Halladay enjoyed in his career, and reward him accordingly?  Most importantly, by what objective criteria will they decide?

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21 thoughts on “Is This a Hall of Fame Pitcher?

  1. Yeah, I’ve always been surprised that Gooden doesn’t get more respect. I don’t know if he should be in the HOF (and that means I don’t know, not I don’t think), but he certainly had a better career than people seem to give him credit for. I saw him no-hit the M’s (on TV) back in 1995 or 1996 with the Yankees, and he looked pretty damn good there. I agree with you that a big part of the problem is that the real Doc Gooden is compared to the “What if” Doc Gooden, and in that instance, the “What If” player will always win.

    • Hey Smak, Just catching up finally on some comments that have been left for me. Sorry it has taken so long. Gooden suffers from “Peaked too soon” syndrome. HOF voters prefer players with a more typical career arc, or, best of all, like Sandy Koufax, to go out while still on top. Thing is, I’ve always gotten the impression that Gooden himself shares that assessment, which can’t begin to help (his now nonexistent) HOF chances.
      Take care, and Merry Christmas,
      Bill

  2. Bill,

    This post and the ensuing discussions utterly fascinate me. I must confess right away that my interest in Baseball is not even 1% of the level of your readership, but your blog has made players/stats much more interesting to me than the actual game.

    I am grateful that my career performance at work is not scrutinized like a HOF candidate is.

    Keep’em coming,
    Allan

    • Thanks very much, Allan. And yes, so many of my readers are extremely well-informed when it comes to baseball. I always appreciate their comments and thoughts. Thanks for coming back and reading all the time. Much appreciated,
      Bill

  3. Love the Hall discussions that go on this time of year. As commentors and yourself point out, Halladay and Gooden are different cases. Individual seasons and how many of them at a high level matter not just the grouping of stats over 3 or 7 years. I agree I am less about career numbers than about high peak, which brings up the argument about how long a player has to peak. Though Gooden has the single standout legendary season, Koufax maintains a great peak longer. It is not as though Gooden had a short career either, he just got derailed by off the field issues. The problem has been the emphasis on wins alone by voters over the past couple of decades. I think Schilling is a clear Hofer and ranks right up there with or above Glavine, but Glavine has the magic 300, and maybe it is forgotten that Schiling belongs to an arguably more elite club of 3000ks. What still boggles my mind is how Jack Morris, who falls short of many compiling milestones and lacks a great peak, has gained so much traction in the mind of voters.

    • Hello, Working backwards, with Morris you have the iconic World Series Game 7, 10-inning performance, the bulldog demeanor, and the good fortune to not be overshadowed by a multitude of other obviously fantastic pitchers during his era. These narratives seem to develop a life of their own, coupled with bullshit “facts” like, “he pitched to the score,” whatever the hell that means.
      Glavine has enough of both the iconic, the public exposure (TBS), and the career numbers to gain legit entry. Schilling, as you point out, might not appear to some Hall voters are being clearly acceptable, but he certainly has a great case, depending on what people choose to look at, or how people simply choose to remember him. That he seems to turn off boatloads of people with his mouth shouldn’t matter, but it might, anyway.
      Thing about Koufax, he had four utterly great years, two good years, and six other unimpressive seasons. If you reverse the order, and his first four seasons were his greatest, then he had two good years, followed by six unimpressive seasons at the end of his career, does the Koufax narrative change? Would the Koufax legend still be what it is today? Again, how many truly great seasons does a pitcher have to have (and at what point in is career does he have to have them) to gain Hall entry (short of being a compiler like Sutton.) If Koufax has only three great seasons instead of four (measured by WAR) at the end of his career, would that have been enough? How about two seasons? Maybe four consecutive was just enough. I have no idea what the answer is. It will be interesting to see, hear and read, however, the tortured logic regarding why either Halladay or Schilling does not belong in the HOF. (they will both definitely have their detractors.)
      Thanks so much for stopping by. I really appreciate it,
      Bill

  4. Didn’t realize that the two “Doc’s” had such comparable numbers. Thanks for pointing that out.
    I hope the writers won’t hold that against either. Of course Gooden’s drug problems are a huge turn off to voters that the other Doc doesn’t have.
    v

    • Hi V, I was just addressing that same point (regarding Gooden’s drug use) with Arne. I agree that his drug use was a factor. I just wonder, though, if his problem had simply been alcohol abuse (which society seems to have less of a problem with), if that would have made any difference in his Hall chances? Perhaps not, but it is telling that his drug use is often pointed out as a reason why he has not been deemed Hall worthy.
      Thanks, V.
      Bill

  5. When I was first scanning this post, I figured you were talking about Halladay. A mark against Gooden is that, unlike Joss, Koufax, and Dean, his woes were self-inflicted in large part. Halladay doesn’t have that demerit.

    • Hi Arne, It’s ironic you bring up Gooden’s drug problem, which I gather you mean by using the term “self-inflicted.” I know that his substance abuse problems are a big turn-off to Hall voters, and to the baseball fan public at large, but I have to wonder how much of that says more about how society views drug usage than it does about Gooden’s actual career? Clearly, there has been a recent greater acceptance of drugs (especially marijuana) use in our society. I wonder if Gooden had played 30 or 40 years from now, if we fans would be using terms like “self-inflicted” which is obviously a value-laden term, or if drug usage of that sort will even be illegal in decades to come? If not, then will future Hall voters have a different standard for behavior expected from Hall candidates? Just wondering.
      Thanks for reading,
      Bill

  6. I should probably take a moment to actually address the salient question you pose here–e.g, what exactly is the expectation that a HOF voter has to have met before they unhook the velvet rope and let you inside? Some pitchers are obviously there for compiling bulk numbers–if Don Sutton doesn’t win 300 games, his argument is less compelling–while other guys are there for relatively brief bursts of excellence, a la Koufax or Dean. Obviously, there are others who don’t really meet either criteria how are there as well, mostly head-scratchers like Bob Lemon and Rube Marquard, which is (in my view, anyhoo) a big part of the problem with the Hall of Fame debate. The BBWAA and the Veterans’ Committee has made so damn many mistakes– the Grimeses and Benders and Flicks and Lloyd Waners and so on and so forth–that it tends to make the debate a least-common-denominator one, a matter of “Burleigh Grimes is in, so why isn’t Tommy John” rather than the reverse, e.g., “If Reggie Smith isn’t in, why are we talking about Ted Simmons?” I don’t know how you can make the process work better, to be frank; I suppose the tweaks in the Veterans Committee process is a step in the right direction; maybe the BBWAA should consider some changes–no limit to who you can vote for but an 80-85% standard for induction, perhaps.

    • What I’d like to see, over time, is a reduction of the number of compilers (like Don Sutton) in the HOF in favor of players who (like Sandy Koufax) burned bright for a relatively small number of years (say, between 4 and 6 years.) Otherwise, eventually, we’ll end up with a Dave Kingman or a Harold Baines in The Hall, who managed to stick around long enough to meet the arbitrary plateau’s such as 3,000 hits (Baines was just 134 hits away from 3,000 when he retired; Kingman was just 58 home runs shy of 500.) Like you, I don’t know how we make the process fairer, but it’s always been a bit too arbitrary to adequately defend.
      Thanks again,
      Bill

  7. I’m not sold on a Gooden HOF candidacy. He had one season that was an outlier (his ’85 season was, per B-R, seven and a half wins better than his next best season), and I think that leads people to believe that his peak was more impressive than it was–his best years are a bunch of three-plus and four win season (nothing to sneeze at, understand) which, in my view, don’t reach the Koufx-esque peak numbers that a guy without the “bulk” accomplishments needs to get in the door. Halladay is a different story, or at least his argument is a bit different than Doc’s. Doc–again, per B-R–had two seasons of 5+ WAR and one more with 4.4. Halladay was better than 5 WAR in eight different seasons. According to B-R, Halladay is 42nd on the list of pitchers in terms of the JAWS measure, where Gooden is 92nd. I personally believe that’s a fair assessment of where they stand in terms of being deserving of a plaque in Cooperstown.

    • Hi, W.K. I do agree with you that their is a qualitative difference between Gooden and Halladay, but I’m wondering how many future HOF voters will see enough difference their to go ahead and induct Halladay, if not not, why not? What standard will they be utilizing in the future to make that sort of decision, where a pitcher with slightly more than 200 wins becomes eligible for the Hall? As another example of what I mean, Kevin Brown, whom I view as a very Hall-worthy pitcher (68.5 career WAR), received even a smaller percentage of the BBWAA vote in his one year on the ballot than Gooden. Was it that he only won 211 games in his career? How did he drop off the ballot so damned fast? I have no idea, other than that the voters were particularly lazy that year. Which brings me back to Gooden. If I was the sole voter as to whether or not he should be a member of the HOF (as I said to Steve in another comment) I might hesitate to enshrine him. I probably, ultimately, would not. But I’d at least hesitate to NOT vote for him. His overall career accomplishments should not be simply written off by the narrative that, ultimately, he failed to reach the lofty heights that his early promise portended for him. I certainly acknowledge that Koufax was better than Gooden, but if we’re going to use career WAR as the ultimate measure, the sum total of Koufax’s career was little better than Gooden’s. Koufax’s narrative, however, is vastly different from Gooden’s or Kevin Brown’s career. So what is it, exactly, that distinguishes one from the other? I doubt the Hall voters could concisely answer that question.
      As always, thanks so much for reading, and for making interesting comments,
      Bill

  8. Interesting post Bill. This HOF topic gets you firing on all cylinders. I like the curvy trend you point out. The list of pitchers with fewer than 200 wins back in the Hall’s early years weaving forward to today where as you say, ” it had become de rigour for fans and pundits alike to trumpet the 300-win standard (or something damned close to it)”

    From not even 200 to then 300 wins as a criteria? That’s an amazing shift in BBWAA perception?

    In one way it seems like an unfair double standard, but then again, we’re talking about the opinions of sportswriters who I would imagine are swayed into thinking and voting in this conservative manner you mentioned…following the trend of the times and what not.

    Of course, no one wants a punch clock robot to replace Cooperstown. Stick in some data and out comes a yeh or neh. Yuck. But you’ve identified a shift in the climate and a new trend definitely seems upon us.

    You raise very legitimate points about Gooden and his WAR and being ignored by the Hall. Maybe the good news is that WAR seems to be knocking on the mainstream door. It’s no longer an obscure measure used by “stat heads.” It’s here and it will soon be an important criteria for HOF voting, salary arbitration, or maybe it already is in some of their minds.

    • Thanks, Steve. I do believe that Hal voters do, over time, go through shifts in thinking like the rest of us. Certainly, there are players who today’s BBWAA doesn’t believe are legit HOF’ers that some future Veteran’s Committee might go ahead and enshrine. I guess my overall point is that sometimes it seems Hall voters take too much of a gut-reaction kind of approach to this issue. What would their peers think? How could they justify voting for player A over player B? On top of that, with the present rule that you can only vote for up to ten players at a time, some very deserving players will probably be completely overlooked due to the sheer number of players to choose from. I agree with you that we shouldn’t replace human voting with some sort of computer-generated mathematical formula. The whole point of The Hall, it seems to me, is to try to capture the essence of the game through the election of the game’s most important (subjectively as well as objectively measured) players. If my vote was the sole vote to either induct Gooden, or not, I’d probably hesitate to induct him. But I would at least hesitate before outright rejecting him as well.
      Thanks for reading, as always,
      Bill

      • Maybe there could be a set of non negotiable criteria such as WAR and other metrics agreed on. These could then be the objective factors. Some players would immediately reach the necessary points required. Players on the cusp could then be put before a vote and a debate. This second phase could be a place for the subjective sides to do battle.

        That wouldn’t eliminate the “gut-reaction kind of approach,” but it would minimize its impact.

      • Hall voting might someday move in that direction, if not officially, then in a kind of de facto way. But, of course, lots of fans (and one would have to suspect members of the BBWAA as well) are not yet comfortable with certain modern measures of production. But your idea is at least as good as one of the others that have been bandied about.
        Take care,
        Bill

      • now if could just get both bands of seamheads and back of baseball card statics to form a more permanent band aid and put aside their petty peduncles, we could maybe form a BBWAA band more in tune with the times.

        How bout that for forced sentences and alliteration! I’m rereading The Greatest American Novel by Philip Roth. Quite a timeless satire on the Hall of Fame and other baseball and non baseball things.

      • I imagine as newer writers eventually get filtered into the BBWAA, there will be a gradual shift towards the more modern stats, but it’ll take a while. Now that’s a novel I have to read! I do enjoy Roth’s writing, but for some reason haven’t tried that one yet.
        Thanks, man.
        Bill

      • No problem Bill. I usually don’t recommend books, but then again, I don’t know too many baseball fans anymore to recommend them to. Sad consequence of Montreal living I guess. But with baseball blogs, that seems to be changing.

        Its good to wear a seat belt when reading the Great American Novel. That crazy, irreverent son of a bitch Roth brings a wild smile to my gut, at least in that book he does.

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